When I was at university I scored what I consider to be one of my most cushty jobs of all time. Every week, in between my scant lectures, I sat in the windowless offices of Stanley Gibbons, the renowned purveyor of rare stamps, stocktaking their thousands of stamps, tweezing them one by one to painstakingly count them. The manic OCD and Excel spreadsheet nerd in me was satisfied to know that every stamp album on those dusty shelves was present and mostly correct. I can literally say I’ve seen the Queen’s profile in more shades than most.
It was at SG (that’s what the kids call it, yo) where the idea of the Commonwealth was really impressed upon me. Commonwealth stamps were a cut above the ROTW (rest of the world). Stamps were filed under bygone country names such as Malaya and Ceylon, as well as a liberal use of the prefix ‘British’ attributed to former colonies. Hong Kong, where my parents were from, was still firmly filed under Commonwealth even though the former British colony had ceased to be part of this political association since the handover back to China in 1997.
When thinking about Her Majesty the Queen and her many heads, I can remember the Silver Jubilee commemoration plates and mugs glinting at me from my grandad’s cabinet in Dollis Hill. His fantasy of Great Britain was largely invigorated by the royal family. What he idealised as ‘English’ behaviour somehow led to the royals. He’d perennially wear a tweed flat cap, echoing Prince Philip’s Balmoral attire. He’d buy certain biscuits or brands of tea and declare how they were really ‘proper’ because of the Royal Duchy insignia. Going to Windsor Castle was considered something of a pilgrimage. My dad inherited his habit of leaving the radio on AM BBC World Service, to the point where I’d routinely wake up for a 1am pee to the crackly ebbs of the national anthem.
The presence of the Queen was weirdly omnipresent in a childhood that was heavily shaded by the distinction that Hong Kong was a British colony and that most of my family were in the UK precisely because of that empire-derived tie. But as the years passed, her presence has faded. My grandad died when I was 10. The handover happened with a glum-looking Prince Charles present. My family began to marvel at how China flourished and prospered, and how fast and shiny Hong Kong looked post ’97. BBC World Service was replaced by the Chinese Phoenix channel. And I have no idea what has happened to those commemorative plates.
My pseudo-Republican boyfriends in adulthood mostly thought the royal family wholly redundant. I watched The Crown on the sly, while falling back on the safety net of its high production values. We don’t even get to look at Her Maj’s visage as much these days in a cash-less, email-fuelled world. I can’t quite remember when I last bought a postage stamp. We celebrate Her Majesty’s reign this week but her image has grown faint, as the baton is passed to her heirs and the column inches are given over to the micro analysis of the Duchess of Cambridge’s wardrobe choices. But right now, amid the sea of Union Jack flags being waved, I’ll think about what her presence meant to people like my grandfather, who licked stamps, dunked supposedly royal-sanctioned biscuits into tea and posed with pomp next to castles.